COMMON COURTESY: In Which Miss Manners Solves the Problem That Baffled Mr. Jefferson. By Judith Martin. Atheneum. 70 pp. $10.95.
THE state of American etiquette is . . . now worse than ever," writes Judith Martin in this new pronouncement from Miss Manners, the reigning arbiter of proper New World social behavior. "Miss Manners is forced to act." The promised gesture was a rabble-rousing John M. Olin Distinguished Lecture at Harvard, the substance of which was reshaped into tract form and is now issued as Common Courtesy.
She sees the whole concept of an egalitarian code of etiquette as elusive. "From its birth, America has badly needed a way to express equality, individual freedom, social mobility, and the dignity of labor in the language of social behavior (which is what etiquette is)," she states, and then goes on to chronicle some of the disasters that have befallen attempts to develop such a language. Thomas Jefferson's 1803 Memorandum on Rules of Etiquette was an especially spectacular failure ("Differences of grade among diplomatic members, gives no precedence") and rapidly fell into disuse. But the intervening years have brought innumerable other aberrations of etiquette in the name of American egalitarian ideals.
Miss Manners diagnoses a current and particularly lethal misinterpretation in the confusion of those forms of interaction appropriate to personal relationships with those more suitable to business:
"It is permissible to fire lovers, but only with cause. 'I don't love you any more' is not considered acceptable; 'You don't meet my present needs' is more suitably businesslike . . . . Friends are only friends if they fit exactly with one's stage of life and monetary interests.
"Meanwhile the empty forms of social behavior survive inappropriately in business situations. We all know that when a business sends its customers 'friendly reminders,' it really means business.
"There is a pretense, by using the social model in commerce, that professional inequalities do not exist. 'Hi, I'm Kimberly, and I'm going to be bringing your dinner. How ya doing?' . . . Kimberly never does bring you the dinner you ordered when you wanted it, but is hurt if you complain."
In the final pages of Common Courtesy, Miss Manners suggests that the only way to get away from all of this strange behavior is to reinstate the integrity of personal life as distinct from public or business life. A language of social interaction must be found which "preclude(s) hierarchies in which absolute standards, such as job titles and money, rather than personal qualities, mark some individuals as obviously superior to others." Just what this language might be is not revealed, so that quibbling readers might wonder whether Miss Manners gets any closer to actually solving the problem than Jefferson did. But Common Courtesy is more a work of diagnosis than of remedy.
Since Miss Manners belongs to the tiny elite of individuals who are always right, it isn't too much of a surprise that in this sharp little tract she puts her finger neatly on the source of much of the chic swinishness that prevails in American society today. But to find insights expressed as wittily and elegantly as they are here is always a pleasant surprise: just about every paragraph is quotable. The design of the volume itself, with its marbling and translucent, vellum-like dust jacket, provides the finishing touch. LINERS TO THE SUN. By John Maxtone-Graham. Macmillan. 495 pp. $29.95.
JOHN Maxtone-Graham has seemingly made an entire life out of ocean voyages and cruises, and the ideal audience for his new book would be made up of others who share his total fascination with the legendary ocean liners and who have spent a good deal of time aboard them. There is enough descriptive and anecdotal lore in Liners to the Sun to take two lifetimes in the gathering, all of it set down with a chatty fervor that is infectious.
Maxtone-Graham maintains that, although the halcyon days of multi-class transatlantic sea voyages are gone forever, torpedoed by cheap, speedy air travel, those who crave a luxurious week or so at sea need not despair. With the advent of the single-class cruise, he says, things are better than ever: a large portion of Liners is given over to detailed descriptions of cruise ships and to personal evaluations of their accommodations and services.
But many readers will enjoy the book mostly for its historical sections, including an especially interesting account of the genesis of the class system that was strictly enforced aboard the ships in days when travel was less democratic. They may also suspect that Maxtone-Graham is not quite as willing as he claims to cash in the old days for the new. His accounts of old voyages, visits to abandoned Scottish shipbuilding yards, and other events associated with the past are saturated with a potent nostalgia that gives them, for at least this reader, far more density than is mustered by his enthusiastic narratives of recent cruises to Alaska and Norway. Those who missed the era of the ocean liner, and who are not drawn to the cruise crowd, may well feel left out. SHADOW DANCING IN THE U.S.A. By Michael Ventura. Tarcher/St. Martin's. 232 pp. $14.95.
BRASH, highly-colored, nervous and self-indulgent, a true voice of the '60s lives on in the writing of Michael Ventura, some of which is collected in this new volume. Diverse though its various essays are in subject, all deplore what Ventura sees as the present anesthetized, media- bleached American landscape and the inhibiting effect it has on those who have to develop and express a personal vision.
Ventura offers the book as solace to those who awake at 3 a.m., sleepless and uneasy about their lives, when "the night (feels) like a huge parking garage in which you can't remember where you left your car." His central metaphor for expression is dancing, and many kinds of "dancing" are explored, some with a great deal more success than others. Few readers are likely to have their eyes opened, for example, by the insight that in each of us there are many identities, and that every interpersonal relationship actually involves a crowd of subsidiary selves. On the other hand, "The Big Chill Factor," a piece inspired by the silly film, will probably strike some sparks for those who had a personal stake in the idealistic emotional boilup of the late '60s.
Best of all is the book's long central essay, "Hear That Long Snake Moan," in which Ventura discusses the African origins of jazz, certain types of pop music and the language and life styles that surround them. Once again he writes ecstatically about dance and the energy it focuses. He loves his subject and documents the history well.
But as Shadow Dancing roars along, its self-centered, fortissimo style can become wearing. If there is one quality that is shared by all of the many and varied things that attract Ventura it is flash, the capacity to grab someone at first exposure. Whenever the reader sees the words "American music" in the book, for example, he should think of the pop end of the spectrum. For all his hot rhapsodizing about creativity, there's never a word about the kind of peculiarly American genius represented by, say, Carl Ruggles or Ruth Crawford Seeger. By limiting himself to the romance of "sweaty little juke joints," he misses out on an important chunk of the territory he stakes out for himself. But it is a relief, in these days when so much writing embalms itself in chic materialism, to meet a writer who expresses the kind of passion for "dancing" that most these days reserve for petty adulteries and kitchen equipment. BEDSIDE HOLLYWOOD: Great Scenes from Movie Memoirs. Edited by Robert Atwan and Bruce Forer Moyer. Bell/Nimbus. 300 pp. $24.95.
IN HIS FORWARD to this delectable collection, Jack Kroll has the nerve to admit what most readers confess to themselves only in private: that even at its trashiest, the movie-star memoir is among the most magnetic of literary forms and that even the most snobbish of readers, if left alone with one secure in the knowledge that no one is watching, will avidly read it to the end. Bedside Hollywood intensifies this effect by assembling the juiciest parts of 40 such memoirs between two covers.
Readers who keep this book on their night tables will soon know a good deal more than their friends about Errol Flynn's arrest for statutory rape, Omar Sharif's caddishness and vast narcissism, Lauren Bacall's first meeting with Bogart on the set of To Have and Have Not, Jackie Cooper's sexual dalliance (at age 17) with Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx's friendship with T.S. Eliot, Dirk Bogarde's sad attempts to make some order out of the behavior of the near-psychotic Judy Garland during the filming of The Lonely Stage, and plenty more. They will also find out that Lauren Bacall and Louise Brooks, neither of whom used ghostwriters, are penetrating critics and gifted stylists whose work invites rereading. Brooks is particularly impressive on the subject of Bogart:
"Although people are better equipped to judge acting than any other art, the hypocrisy of 'sincerity' prevents them from admitting that they, too, are always acting some role of their own invention. To be a successful actor, then, it is necessary to add eccentricities and mystery to naturalness, so that the audience can admire and puzzle over something different from itself. Leslie (Howard)'s eccentricities were his fondness for his pipe and for English tweed. Bogart's eccentricities were the use of his mouth and speech. As for mystery, Leslie would have become less if he had revealed himself; Bogart did reveal himself and became more." THE LATE, GREAT PENNSYLVANIA STATION. By Lorraine B. Diehl. American Heritage/ Houghton Mifflin. 168 pp. $19.95.
WHEN Penn Station in New York City was demolished in 1963, only a few architects protested the death of one of the greatest American buildings. But there was a delayed public reaction, and a sense of the importance of irreplaceable architectural treasures came to be felt. Lorraine B. Diehl has now brought the station vividly back to life with a highly readable and beautifully illustrated tribute to the huge "Roman Doric" structure.
The main portion of the new book is given over to an account of the conception and construction of the station. Both Alexander Cassatt (brother of artist Mary Cassatt), who came out of retirement to take over the presidency of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1899 and who conceived of the great project, and Charles McKim, who was to be its main architect, were drawn to the beauties of classical Roman and Greek architecture. Coincidentally, both had visited the Baths of Caracalla during visits to Rome in June of 1901, and the influence of the Baths was to be an important element in the subsequent design of the station, which by the time of its completion in 1910 would have consumed astounding amounts of the highest quality marble, pink granite, fine wood, and steel.
But even more arduous was the construction of the tunnels under the Hudson River, the East River, and Manhattan Island itself. Previously, visitors who traveled to New York City by the Pennsylvania Railroad left their trains on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River and then made an extremely dirty and dangerous river crossing by ferry. Cassatt was determined that passengers should arrive directly on Manhattan Island, and initiated construction of the tunnels. Although many lives were lost to blowouts, explosions and the bends, the tubes were completed and the trains eventually did roll. By the time Pennsylvania Station was completely opened to the public on November 27, 1910, both Cassatt and McKim were dead.
Diehl projects the heroic nature of the undertaking, and her book will evoke affection for the station in those who have never even seen it. She is especially successful at conveying the atmosphere of shared adventure that was a part of the New York City state of mind in those very different days, and the photographs she chooses to illustrate the volume are powerfully nostalgic. PUCK OF THE DROMS: The Lives and Literature of The Irish Tinkers. By Arelia Court. University of California Press. 297 pp. $24.95.
IRELAND'S traveling tinkers, with their Gypsy-like lifestyle and distinctive culture, are something of a mystery. Their secret Shelta language, which seems to be the result of obfuscations deliberately inflicted on Gaelic and English with inclusions from Romany, Yiddish and other tongues, is obscure in its origin. Although the Irish government has made efforts to "settle" the Tinkers, put them to work in factories and place their children permanently in school, their migratory lifestyle and the values underlying it have remained intact.
In her investigation of the Tinkers and their ways, Arelia Court makes use of a collage-like format that projects something of their proud outsiders' spirit. After a crisply written but densely factual introduction she permits the Tinkers to speak completely for themselves, intercutting autobiographical narratives by three informants with traditional songs and stories. Court's only intrusions take the form of notes, which fill the final third of the volume. The narratives themselves are so kinetic that it sometimes seems impossible that the speaker can sustain them extemporaneously. The tinsmith and laborer Patrick Stokes describes his mother's smoking habit as follows:
". . . if me mother had no tabaccy there was no sleep. If she lost her pipe there'd be no such thing as peace. She wouldn't sit down, the roars of her, crying about her pipe! . . . Well, I seen me mother losing her pipe one time, the Lord have mercy on her, and me brother made one out of tin! Now that's the truth! It nearly roasted her, but he put a very long stem out of it. He had to do it, for ease, 'cause he was a married man and she'd be up and down the road, crying, crying, crying, like a baby for a bottle, and there was no town in miles. . ."
The reader comes away convinced that the Tinkers are not the disreputable band of thieves and con artists they have so often been portrayed as being, but the possessors of an original and highly creative oral literary culture.
Bob Halliday writes frequently on contemporary literature and music.